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What is the Mary of Games?

February 24, 2009

I was talking with another faculty member recently about games and their history. We came upon the topic of the infamous Atari cartridge dump in New Mexico, and began riffing on what scholars in the future might think about the contents of the landfill.

This made me think of an astounding fact about Italian Renaissance art– somewhere around 90% of all works of art produced from the mid-14th into the late 15th century included Mary, the mother of Christ. We thought about this for a minute, and tried to figure out what might meet this level of frequency in games. The obvious answer was guns. Guns!

If representations of Mary are used as evidence of the centrality of Christianity in the culture of the Italian Renaissance, what does the preponderance of guns say about our culture, and more specifically, the cultural form of games?

My first thought is this isn’t very good.

– John Sharp

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20 Comments leave one →
  1. jcaskey permalink
    February 24, 2009 10:00 pm

    If you look at firearms in terms of the second amendment, all implied violence aside, they represent freedom.

    In both making and playing games, there are few things as satisfying to experience as true freedom.

    Whether its in the creation of them, custom content, player choice, emergent gameplay, or making a statement, I think freedom is a big part of making and playing games.

  2. February 24, 2009 11:46 pm

    When you mentioned the Mary of Games, my first thought wasn’t guns, but rather the “holy pentality” of Ninjas, Monkeys, Pirates, Zombies and Robots…

  3. February 25, 2009 12:39 am

    One of the first exercises I get my students to do is to examine the question of why computer games feature guns so heavily. I think there are several different intersecting reasons.

    One significant influence is the poverty of our interface devices. Basically all we can do it point at something and press a button, which fairly naturally translates to shooting. First person worlds exacerbate this by making close-quaters interaction very difficult due to small cone of vision.

    The act of aiming and firing a gun at a moving target is an interesting dynamic that sits within the sweet-spot of what our current technology affords. In contrast, you don’t see guns as much in board games, because without a computer to simulate the physics, the rules would have to be simplified to the level that the interest is lost. If guns are to be kept, a different dynamic would need to be created, probably at a higher level of abstraction and challenging different skills.

    Of course, this does not mean that guns are inevitable. Beyond Good and Evil implemented the same point-and-shoot dynamic but replaced the gun with a camera. And as the WiiMote improves (with the much anticipated gyroscope add-on) we are beginning to find new interaction models that such devices afford.

  4. February 25, 2009 6:01 pm

    It also sheds light on how much absolute control “The Church” exerted over an ignorant populace. Besides, guns today symbolize two irrisistable human desires: freedom and power.

    My first thought for the “New Mary” was the overly-busty female characters found in almost all games that feature women at all.

  5. February 25, 2009 10:05 pm

    What about crates?

    You can find crates in games with no guns – and almost always in games with guns.

    I guess it speaks of our consumerist nature. And of our desire to reach the heavens by climbing on stuff.

  6. February 25, 2009 10:06 pm

    I remember Raph wrote in his book that all games, even shooters, are about conflict and the resolution of it, and that guns were simply a fast, simple, direct, and visceral form of conflict resolution. It’s an interesting point Malcolm makes about board games: each form leans towards whatever it is best equipped to model and 3D video games are really good at the shooting simulation. Personally, I don’t buy the guns=freedom argument. Freedom is in the mind.

  7. February 25, 2009 10:13 pm

    This is an interesting topic, particularly on Ash Wednesday, and great to think about.

    I would suggest that if Mary were the actual focal point of all these paintings, then guns have a ways to go to become Mary.

    A great many games – the majority of games – have no gun, and many of the most popular games of all time instead feature couches (The Sims), swords (WoW) or Penguins (as in the Club). So, it may be swords which enjoyed an amazing run of it through the 1980s and early 1990’s.

    If we discuss this on a feature level, I would say that character development is certainly a Mary, though in the more abstract sense. In games played per day, I believe that the match 3 mechanic may be the most prevalent (and appropriate for the Trinity, I suppose).

    It might be Life, HP or survival, making it to the end. Might it really be us? We appear in 100 percent of games, a better record than our Blessed Mother.

  8. February 26, 2009 2:59 am

    I want to say “The Princess”, but I can’t really back it up with any evidence as far as number of games. Still, having grown up playing Nintendo does make the “The Princess” an undeniably iconic image, even if in terms of percentages she pales in comparison to the Virgin Mary.

  9. Stoffe permalink
    February 26, 2009 10:40 am

    Still a lot better, as guns aren’t about superstition/delusion and religion is magnitudes more harmful to humanity (including, but hardly limited to, using said guns).

    I thought I’d never say that about guns (I’m all for tight control) but that’s progress!

  10. February 26, 2009 11:16 am

    That’s a good point… there is a difference between something that just appears in games, versus the thing that is consistently the focal point. If you’re going to say “guns are in all games” then a better analogy would be guns = paint (all paintings have paint in them) rather than guns = Mary.

    That brings up another question: what is the game element analogous to the focal point of a painting? Is it literally where your eyes focus on the screen, or is it the core mechanic, or is it the long-term objective?

    In any case, it may be that games are more diverse than the subject matter of Renaissance paintings, and that we don’t really have a direct correlation with Mary. Good for us. 🙂

  11. February 26, 2009 11:32 am

    Images of Mary are occasionally seen outside of art as miracles, like in steamy windows or in pieces of toast. When approached this way, there is only one symbol, one icon of the same stature within games.

    The Dopefish.

  12. Jacek Wesołowski permalink
    February 26, 2009 4:20 pm

    I think it’s important to distinguish between “pure” games and “games with a message”. The former would be analogue to a painted wall. Note how you can buy a painting of Saint Mary and hang it in your bedroom just because you want a wall in that room to look less empty. Similarly, you can play a sophisticated game just because you like its mechanics.

    I don’t think guns represent freedom anywhere outside of the US. They seem to be more universally regarded as a symbol of power.

    I think the Mary of games is combat. There are good technical reasons why there are many games with guns in them, but these could be hunting games, or sports games, or games about making people fall in love with each other by hitting them with magical arrows. We could have lots of hagiographic games about the life of a saint. We could be playing purely social multiplayer games (such as some variants of MUDs). We could play more games about economic or diplomatic struggles. But instead of that we play lots of games about the resolution of conflict through combat.

    I’m trying to avoid the word “violence”, because the point of most games is to defeat someone, rather than hurt them. Violence in games is usually put in a context, just like combat in Greek myths was (not to mention that only half of Greek myths are about killing; the other half are about some man kidnapping some woman). But combat in games isn’t – more often than not it’s the point of game and the story is usually just an excuse.

  13. jofsharp permalink
    February 26, 2009 9:50 pm

    Wow, great conversation. A few thoughts:

    @ jcaskey: Your post reminds me that firearms are a very political subject, one that leads to strong feelings on both sides. I agree that for some people firearms == freedom, but for many others, guns are a symbol of power (as was noted above), but also violence, crime, etc. Is the gunplay in the GTA franchise about freedom?

    @ Brenda: Your point about Mary being the actual subject matter of all those Renaissance paintings is a good one– in many of those paintings, Jesus or God is the real focus, with Mary in the role of the communication facilitator. The subject is most often the viewer’s soul.

    @ David: Raph is right about games: conflict is at the heart of the form. But that is conflict in a more abstracted sense– the resolution of the challenges that take shape when players try to achieve their goals within the mechanics and rules of the game. Guns are one form this can take, but so is Pong’s paddles and balls.

    @ Stoffe: Religion has done much damage, but it has also done good in the lives of many. Like any form of power and authority, it is all in the hands of whomever is in control.

    @ Jacek: I agree with your assessment that combat is the real Mary in games (that is a funny sounding phrase, isn’t it?). What does that say about our interests in games? In part, this is driven by the marketplace, which is a manifestation of cultural interests. I also agree that most sports can be viewed as a stylized, abstracted form of combat, so that fits.

  14. February 26, 2009 11:11 pm

    Here’s my take on the subject:
    http://dsilvers.wordpress.com/2009/02/27/the-unifying-icon/

  15. jofsharp permalink
    February 26, 2009 11:58 pm

    @ Daniel: since we started the conversation here, I’ll answer your post here rather than on your blog. Your post begins with an implication that Mary wasn’t prominent in Renaissance paintings until she was sainted. Her veneration goes back to the 5th century and the Council of Ephesus, with works of art appearing not too much later. Getting closer to the Italian Renaissance, she is prominent over and over and over in Italo-Byzantine works, in early Renaissance works, etc. So in one respect, you are right– in early Christian art, Christ was more frequently seen, but that isn’t the Renaissance– but your discursive ambiguity is, well, wrong.

    You mention you find the argument flawed, but your counter point doesn’t hold water– are swords prominent in Renaissance art? I have two degrees in the subject, and can think of swords playing a major role in paintings in only a handful of instances.

    Obviously war has been around forever. But what does that have to do with my initial question?

    In his book, /Turing’s Man/, Jay Bolter says “… not many philosophers and theologians compared the world to a lentil bean.” He was talking about how Medieval Europe was much more interested in using timekeeping as a way to frame and consider their world than they were in thinking about the advances in farming technologies. In other words, Bolter is noting how some phenomena serve as more important modes of relating to our world then others. It was this line of thinking that led me down the road to think about an analog to Mary in video games.

    So yes, there was violence and lots of swords in the 14th and 15th centuries, but there isn’t as much art depicting violence and swords as there are Mary. I would say this is in large part due to Mary’s intercessory role in the lives of Christians– she was the conduit to God, and therefore, heaven. Swords weren’t.

    The dopefish line of thought seems tangental to this conversation, as you changed the subject to mirages, copyrights and easter eggs, and not the discussion of an all-encompassing framing concept through which we consider the form of games.

  16. Chris Pioli permalink
    February 27, 2009 4:40 am

    @jofsharp: good catch there with the theological attributes of Mary. If we had to go down that line of thought, I’d think Elle from Xenogears represents that aspect of Mary the most.

    I’d like to circle back to Brenda’s original question, though. I try my best to refrain from the analogies between video games and established art forms. That mode of thinking leads to a narrow view of what video games are capable of. So when I hear “the Mary of games” I react in the same way when I hear “the Shakespeare of games” or “the Divine Comedy of games”: I cringe.

    It might be important to mention that there is a difference between “having guns in games” and games devoted entirely to shooting as a means of conflict resolution. Guns have represented freedom in this country because during the American Revolution it was the minutemen and civilians who took up arms against the British. Our forefathers fought the British off with guns and established their own country, so of course our heritage has a lot to do with firearms.

    I’m probably going to regret saying this, but when making a video game, it’s easy to give the PC a gun and tell him to go wild. The first shot on target usually does the job. The player must be careful with his ammunition, thereby making accuracy and conservation an important component of play. And the effects are immediate. Shoot a gun, kill someone. perfect for our modern day era of immediate gratification.

    Perhaps the question of “the Mary of games” is about the rift between the values or ideals our two eras appreciate. I’m sure jofsharp is a better authority on the Renaissance than I am, but it seems 15th and 14th century creative types and their audiences were more concerned with the afterlife and deeper, meaningful questions about spirituality. I can’t say quite the same thing about video gamers…

    I think that gap can be filled by video games which put the player’s decisions and their consequences into the spotlight. It can surprise the player, and make them think (even if they don’t want to).

    Actually, aren’t video games traditionally meant to be a form of entertainment? Something to distract ourselves from heavy, intense aspects of life? If that’s the case, why the hell do we want to find the Mary in video games?

    In one of my old literature classes, the comparison was made between two highly regarded authors – Dante Alighieri wrote the Divine Comedy as a means of helping people grow and improve their spiritual life, and likely thought that literature was meant to help us better understand humanity. Chaucer, on the other hand, likely wrote his stories for the sake of entertaining the people, and saw literature as a form of escapism. That was a question on my final for that quarter, too… And yet, a lot of game developers these days – perhaps a majority of them – probably think along the lines of Chaucer. It’s fun. It’s entertainment.

  17. jcaskey permalink
    February 27, 2009 4:13 pm

    @jofsharp, true, in games guns aren’t always depicted as symbols of freedom, in fact many times its the opposite. I think the point I was trying to make is that in real life (most commonly in the US, as noted by Jacek) people tend to see them as symbols of freedom. It’s less about using them, and more about the right to own them and defending your family/land/etc. People are drawn to games with guns because for many, it’s the closest they’ll get to experiencing using one in a combat scenario without any repercussions or consequences.

    Though to answer your question, I’d say yes, in some instances, the gun play in GTA is in fact related to freedom. Fighting to defend yourself and your brother, to survive and achieve the American dream? Sounds like freedom to me.

  18. Ravenborne permalink
    March 2, 2009 7:28 pm

    Great discussion. I’ll offer up my own two cents.

    It occurs to me that Mary represents a sort of gatekeeper for passage into the afterlife, the primary concern of that era. In a sense, the power of life over death.

    In this day and age, don’t guns represent something similar? Isn’t it interesting that Mary is a single figure external to the individual, yet a gun puts the power into the hands of each individual. It seems to be part of the huge shift towards individualism of the recent centuries.

  19. March 3, 2009 7:46 am

    When I read John’s original post I said, “of course”. Some of the responses have been really puzzling, as it seems to me people are trying to find a way around the obvious, an excuse for violence. For example, “guns equal freedom” would be a hilarious way to divert attention from violence if it wasn’t so ludicrous.

    But I kept thinking about fantasy role-playing and about games in ancient-medieval settings, and finally realized that a better formulation would be “instruments of killing” rather than “guns”. One step further: perhaps Mary was often in paintings as a human representation of the divine, a way to bring god into the picture without trying to depict the divine–an idea more than a person or thing. To me, the “Mary” of video games is more general than guns or instruments of killing, it’s “depictions of violent death.” Limiting the discussion to “guns” diverts us from the real problem.

    This sets video games even further away from non-electronic games; even in those non-electronic games where guns are theoretically present, e.g. wargames (now the minority), the players rarely think of what they’re doing as involving killing, they think of it as strategy and tactics, as a way to win the war or battle. There is no blood, no body counts, no ragdoll bodies flopping around. How many people who play the boardgame Risk, to cite a common example, think of the elimination of pieces as the death of people? Hardly anyone, I’d suppose.

    The next step goes back to John’s suggestion that this is not good: no wonder some people think video games promote violence, when depictions of violent death are so very common. Recognize the problem, then you can decide what (if anything) can be done about it.

    (Do I think video games promote violence in the young? No more than American football or cage fighting or TV or films. But that doesn’t actually answer the question, does it, it just makes it a broader question.)

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